Beyond conviction

IngeHaving a drug-related conviction can spell exclusion from many professions. Nicola Inge of Business in the Community talks to DDN about breaking down barriers to work for people with criminal convictions

Around three quarters of employers have admitted that they discriminate against applicants who have a criminal record. This, says the business-led charity Business in the Community (BITC), is their loss, as it means that they’re missing out on a vast pool of skills and talent.

One of the main means of exclusion is the tick box on job application forms that asks about previous convictions – a ‘blunt instrument’, according to BITC. It’s this that led the organisation to launch the Ban the Box campaign last year, calling for people to be judged on their ability to do the job and with the disclosure of convictions delayed until a later stage of the recruitment process.

The initial inspiration came from a US campaign with the same name, launched by an organisation called the National Employment Law Project. ‘It had the same principles as ours but it was taking a legislative approach based on equal opportunities, and saying that people from certain minority ethnic groups were being disproportionately affected because they were over-represented in the prison population,’ says BITC’s work inclusion campaign manager Nicola Inge.

BITC followed the US campaign’s progress and a couple of years ago began working with a group of companies led by Alliance Boots to look at the issues around increasing employment opportunities for ex-offenders in the UK. ‘One of the things they all agreed that they could do – and that was within their control and would make a positive impact – was to remove the tick box from their application forms and move it further down the process,’ she says.

BITC began a dialogue with other organisations involved in supporting offenders back into work, such as Nacro, Unlock, the St Giles Trust and Recruit with Conviction, to find out whether it was something they would support and then took the idea to the business community itself, holding discussions during Responsible Business Week. After a good response from both, the campaign was worked up for its launch last October.

‘A really big part of it for us is sensitising people to the campaign, and getting employers to change their practices,’ she says, and so far the response has been positive, with 15 employers – who collectively employ 150,000 people – signed up. ‘We’re very pleased with the reception, and we’ve learned a lot.’

One of the main lessons has been how much depends on the sector, she stresses. ‘Either the sector they’re in or they’re working with being regulated or having particularly strict security measures, and that actually there’s a lot of lack of understanding among the business community about what they can and can’t ask. That’s the stuff that we’ve really been developing as the campaign’s being going on – resources to help them understand the regulatory environment and take some of the fear out of it.’

Much of this fear is ‘based on it being a very complex issue’, she acknowledges, often exacerbated by misrepresentations in the media. ‘But what I find is that once you actually take people into a prison and introduce them to people who’ve got convictions – once they can tangibly grab hold of it and get their head around it – that fear goes and they realise that it’s actually not as difficult as they thought.’

However, it’s not necessarily just fear on the part of the employers, she explains. ‘They have concerns about safeguarding their employees, their customers, their clients, so it’s almost a fear on behalf of what they think their employees, customers or clients would think. It has so many layers that we need to tackle, which is why we’ve been really grateful for the support we’ve received from organisations who’ve endorsed the campaign, because alone we can’t change the perceptions of every employer in the country – much as we’d like to. We’ve really relied heavily on the businesses that have signed up and the organisations that have endorsed us.’

One of these is Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer, the first law firm to sign up and an organisation that’s had a long-standing involvement with BITC’s Ready for Work programme, which helps people overcome disadvantage and move into employment. ‘About a third of the people we support through Ready for Work have unspent convictions and Freshfields, to their huge credit, have been very forward-thinking and brave in focusing their involvement on offering placements and employment to some of our Ready for Work clients.’

So far they’ve offered around 250 paid placements, with 25 people even going on to full-time employment at the firm. ‘The reason they were so quick to adopt Ban the Box is that they’d already been working with and employing ex-offenders,’ she says. ‘They’d explored some of the stuff around risk and management support and broken down a lot of those barriers, which meant that when Ban the Box came out there was a really strong precedent within the organisation. One of the other themes that emerged really strongly from the campaign was leadership, and we were very lucky that one of their partners was a really strong, powerful advocate for the campaign internally. I think once you’ve got that commitment at that level of seniority it reassures the people who are going to be implementing the changes and helps in setting a bit of momentum and pace.’

So, turning it around for a moment, what would her advice be to someone with a criminal record who’s looking for a job – how can they best present themselves in a positive light? ‘I think probably the first, and arguably most important, piece of advice is find out exactly what your criminal record is. There’s an awful lot of people out there who don’t necessarily know the extent of their record and don’t know what’s spent or unspent, and that can trip people up. So that’s what we always say – find out exactly what it is, what you’d have to declare, what are your unspent convictions.’

It’s also about building up an ‘evidence base’ to show to employers, she stresses. ‘Building skills, building experience – so many employers that we speak to say that they recruit for attitude and then train for skills. So when someone comes to an interview and presents a really positive attitude towards that employer – they’ve done their research, they’re really motivated and passionate about learning the job – that stands for an awful lot. The challenge for people with convictions is that often they don’t get the opportunity to get to that point because they get screened out, which is what Ban the Box is trying to tackle.’ 

So what would BITC say to an employer who was reluctant to hire someone with a drug-related conviction? ‘My first port of call would be trying to understand whether that’s borne out of personal fear or misconceptions, or whether there’s a genuine operational barrier,’ she says. ‘I would always try to get an employer in front of someone who had unspent convictions who could actually make them understand that they’re a job seeker, they’re talented, they have their own skills and experience that they could offer, and break down some of that fear and stigma.’

While clearly there are some people with convictions that mean they’ll never be able to work in specific industries or roles, they’re the minority, she stresses. ‘With most people, if they’re able to tell their own personal story in a way that helps the employer understand that they’re not going to be a risk to the business or custom­ers, then there are actually very few operational barriers to employers taking them on.’

There’s also a strong argument that people who’ve overcome things like a substance problem or prison sentence would bring a strength of character – and be extremely loyal – to any employer that gave them a chance. ‘What we’re absolutely not advocating for is positive discrimination,’ she states. ‘We’re saying that different life experiences develop their own specific qualities in an individual, and I think employers, more and more, are having to look in different places to find the qualities they need in an employee. With this whole concept of recruiting for attitude and training for skills – particularly in terms of some of the entry level jobs – the qualities and the positive attitude, and that determination and grit that some people have if they’ve overcome particularly challenging life experiences are arguably greater than in some other candidates.’

The organisation is now also involved in some EU-funded research into health inequalities in childhood, welfare and employment. The data is still being analysed but among the preliminary findings are that people facing multiple barriers to work ‘really value the personalised, accessible support’ provided by specialist agencies such as drug or homeless charities, and that a wide network of support is also vital, with many clients engaging with three or four agencies when looking for work. ‘It was also interesting that for people with substance and alcohol misuse issues, their sustainment rates for jobs were actually higher than some of the other groups we support,’ she says.

And in terms of BITC’s extensive dealings with employers, does she feel that stigmatising attitudes towards people who’ve had drug problems are still entrenched, or are they starting to soften a little? ‘From the way employers are talking to us, I think it has developed a little bit,’ she says. ‘Really, what they’re saying is “give us the right people for the job”. It’s less about them needing to understand everyone’s background and experience and more about wanting to understand what that person can offer to the organisation. In that respect it has developed. We certainly don’t take the approach of selling in our Ready for Work graduates because of the experiences they’ve overcome – it’s more about “look what this person can do, look what they can bring to your business”. I think that’s kind of the shift in narrative.’

What’s ultimately vital is supporting people to tell their story in the most positive light to employers, she stresses. ‘So in terms of disclosing convictions, it’s about practising what that disclosure statement might be, and how you can explain to the employer that the experience you’ve overcome – or your previous conviction – isn’t going to present a risk to them. And also being very confident about what it is that you can bring as an employee.’

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